As the black door of Number 10 Downing Street opens to its 56th Prime Minister, an unenviable in-tray awaits. Britain’s newly appointed leader, Liz Truss, faces a cost-of-living crisis, war in Europe, spiralling energy costs, fractious great power competition, crippling supply chain issues and an impending recession, the likes of which we may not have witnessed for several generations. The Prime Minster is of course not alone in facing such seemingly intractable challenges. The very nature of our world dictates that these are issues of a global magnitude and will be testing the minds of politicians, public servants and business leaders the world over. It is a stark illustration of the inherent complexity – or as the Cynefin Framework might justifiably dictate, the chaotic nature – of today’s world. It would be a bias to the present, however, to state that such complexity is new; a business leader in the midst of the industrial revolution, a military commander developing a war strategy in the early C20th, or a politician negotiating the Cuban missile crisis, would all be consumed by the sheer complexity of the environment they were operating in. That said, as author’s of the Cynefin Framework, David Snowdon and Mary Boone argue, we live in a ‘new epoch of human history’ where globalisation, ever-advanced technologies, social and cultural shifts and complex economic systems, present us with unprecedented challenges and opportunities.
Ironically, all too often, our response to complexity is to create more. As Yves Morieux, director of Boston Consulting Group’s Institute for Organization argues, businesses have met the challenge of today’s complexities by becoming even more complex, more unwieldy, and less agile. Increased regulation, structural and often siloed growth, and steady evolutions of competing policies and procedures, serve to constrain and slow organisations, when the operating environment demands the very opposite.
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. It takes a lot of hard work to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions. […] It involves digging through the depth of complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep.”
As complexity consumes us, it all too frequently disrupts our ability to achieve our desired outcomes, to succeed, to ‘win’. Success starts with a clear strategy. Like many concepts that perpetuate the business world, strategy defies a universal definition. ‘Strategy is simple,’ argues Felix Oberholzer-Gee, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. ‘It is a plan to create value. Strategy is about looking forward, seeing the future.’ Esteemed management guru, Peter Drucker, similarly saw strategy as a series of forward-looking choices an organisation makes, adapting appropriately to the environment in which it competes. Strategy he stated is, ‘a pattern of activities that seek to achieve the objectives of the organization and adapt its scope, resources and operations to environmental changes in the long term.” From a military perspective where the term finds its roots, strategy is seen as the interplay between the why (purpose, vision and desired outcome), the what (what you intend to do) and critically, the how (the integration of choices you make to enable your goal). In essence, the synchronisation of ends, ways and means.
The development of a strategy itself, once understood, is not in itself complex. But to deliver success is hard, evermore so amid sustained complexity. As Rebecca Stephens articulates in Making it Happen: Lessons from the Frontline of Strategy Execution, ‘The fallout from such intense complexity is that gap between intent and delivery, between strategy and execution.’ It is in execution that many organisations fall short, with research varying the extent of failures between two-thirds and up to 90%. So how do we close the gap on strategy and execution, between ambition and performance? As Paul Heugh, CEO of Skarbek Associates argues, execution demands the effective integration of humanology (people), methodology (process) and technology. In this series of articles, the focus will be on the former, humanology; the centrality and criticality of people. Success or failure is defined by the aggregation of individual actions, behaviours and decisions that drive towards a shared goal. It is people, therefore, who ultimately deliver and who will dictate an organisation’s ability to thrive in an increasingly complex operating environment.
In a series of 3 articles, we will draw on experiences across business, the military, sport and academia to explore how mindset, freedom with responsibility, and communication interplay to drive successful strategy execution. To succeed it will be argued, requires a particular mindset – an attitude and set of beliefs. A cognitive disposition that matches will with agility. It necessitates strength of mind in pursuit of the ends, but agility of mind in the ways and means.
Lessons from the Frontline
On 4 Jun 1940, Britain’s newly appointed Prime Minister, Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons in what is now regarded as one of his finest orations. ‘We shall fight on the beaches,’ he declared, ‘we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.’ Delivered the day after more than 340,000 British and French troops were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk, it set the tone of a nation, one fighting for its very survival. In the months that followed, British resolve was further demonstrated above sovereign skies as The Royal Air Force (RAF) successfully defended against a determined German Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, in so doing deterring an impending German invasion. Such tenacity and fortitude resonated across a nation nurturing an indefatigable will to win.
As A.G. Lafley and Roger Martin argue in their celebrated book Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works, strategy is not complex but it is hard. By its very nature strategy is enduring, dynamic, complex and intensely challenging. It is fraught with competition, setbacks, unforeseen errors and failures. To succeed requires a particular mindset – an attitude and set of beliefs. A cognitive disposition that matches will with agility. It necessitates strength of mind in pursuit of the ends but agility of mind in the ways and means.
I8 months after Churchill’s rousing speech, Britain remained entrenched in a war of attrition, exemplified by the RAF’s strategic bombing campaign over Germany. In late 1941, despite many tactical successes, RAF losses were proving significant, hampered in part by the emergence of a new high-technology capability, the radar. Determined to understand the extent of Germany’s defensive network, British military intelligence identified a ‘Wurzburg’ radar installation at Bruneval, on France’s north coast. Given the terrain and enemy dispositions a sea raid was deemed unfeasible and so responsibility fell to Britain’s newly formed airborne forces. 120 men of C Company, 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment were chosen to undertake this audacious operation. Commanded by Major John Frost (later Commanding Officer 2 PARA who led the infamous battle at Arnhem Bridge), they dropped into German-occupied France under cover of darkness on 27th February 1942. Quickly securing their target, the plan swiftly unraveled; part of the force was dropped several kilometres from the intended drop zone, enemy resistance stiffened throughout, men were shot and vital communications with Royal Navy support ships failed to operate. Such setbacks, however, whilst not foreseen, were met with ingenuity, determination and resolve. Empowered teams dispersed across the battlefield adapted to not only their own given task – seize the radar, clear the enemy stronghold or deter reinforcements – but did so with a full appreciation of the overall plan and understanding of the commander’s intent. In the early hours of 28th February, under heavy German fire, Frost’s force made their escape, successfully returning to the UK with their Wurzburg prize. In the first daring raid of its kind by British forces, these determined paratroopers demonstrated an unrelenting will to succeed with an agility of mind in execution.
“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.”
The Will to Win
The concept of willpower is a state of mind. It resonates in what Stephen Covey, in his multi-million-copy bestseller The 7 Habits of High Effective People describes as ‘proactivity’. This is more than being a ‘go-getter’ or having a ‘can-do’ attitude. It is a mindset that recognises that as human beings we have a unique ability to choose, the freedom to choose how we respond to outside stimuli. With this freedom comes responsibility (a concept that will be explored in the second of three articles). ‘Our behaviour is a function of our decisions, not our conditions. We can subordinate feelings to values. We have the initiative and the responsibility to makes things happen,’ he says. Success in strategy execution necessitates such a mindset. It requires individuals not to blame their environment or context but to be proactive and take responsibility for their decisions and actions. We cannot choose much of what we experience, but we can choose how we respond.
The concept of proactive choice is explored further by Jim Collins in what he determines ‘The Level 5 Leader.’ In a study of over 1435 Fortune 500 companies over 5 years, he sought to understand how a good company becomes great. In his business best-seller, Good to Great, Collins argues that the consistently most successful companies are led by exceptional Level 5 Leaders who demonstrate ‘a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will….a ferocious resolve, an almost stoic determination to do whatever needs to be done to make the company great.’ It is an extrinsic drive that focuses on the needs of the organisation, the strategy required to succeed and the people that make it happen, rather than an egocentric intrinsic motivation that too often plagues companies at senior levels. A fortitude, tenacity and an unwavering belief in what you are setting out to achieve, ultimately driven by purpose, values and personal humility.
The mindset of individual leaders as articulated by Covey and Collins is important but only goes so far in the successful execution of strategy unless it is embedded into the collective DNA. Whilst executive leaders may define and direct strategy, it is people at all levels of an organisation who ultimately deliver. Execution is in the everyday. It is in the ups and downs, the successes and failures, the expected and unexpected. It is the cumulative effect of every decision and action across every individual, team and department of a business. Sociologist Daniel Chambliss, in his study of Olympic swimmers in the early 1980s, captured the reality of what constitutes success. His paper, The Mundanity of Excellence, argues that excellence, which he refers to as consistent superiority of performance, ‘is accomplished through the doing of actions, ordinary in themselves, performed consistently and carefully, habitualized, compounded together and added up over time.’ Successful strategy execution therefore, requires a collective determination to succeed and a steadfast commitment by all. As Vince Lombardi, former head coach of the Green Bay Packers and reputed to be one of the greatest sports coaches of all time argued, ‘Individual commitment to a group effort, that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.’ It this collective commitment to excellence that hallmarks many of the most enduringly successful organisations. Britain’s 22 Special Air Service Regiment, for example, heralded as one of the world’s elite military forces, demand of their people a ‘relentless pursuit of excellence,’ while the globally respected London Symphony Orchestra’s primary objective declares a ‘striving for continued artistic excellence and creativity across all of the LSO’s work’.
But tenacity, will power and determination, whether individual or collective, will get one only so far. If strategy is a concept, strategy execution is a reality. As the oft-quoted military saying reminds us, ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy.’ Reality therefore, requires agility.
“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”
-Attributed to Prof. Stephen Hawking-
The Agile Mind
One of the few certainties the future provides us is uncertainty. We live in a period of time when such a truism is all too evident. Wherever on the spectrum of Rumsfeldian known/ unknowns recent events may lie, few a decade ago would have accurately forecast Britain’s exit from the European Union, a global pandemic and war in Ukraine to name but a few geo-strategic events that now permeate our daily conversations and impact our business strategies. Change, whether on the near or far horizon, is constant and by its very nature can be unsettling and derailing, bringing about uncertainty and friction. But it must be expected. From a perspective of strategy it must not only be expected at the point of design but, critically, the culture of an organisation must expect, embrace and, where opportunity arises, relish change in its execution. The very best laid plans will, at the point of action, inevitably face the Clausewitzian fog, friction, chaos and uncertainty of war. It is not only will and strength of mind that is required to thrive amid such uncertainty but also agility. As Rebecca Stephenson reminds us in Making it Happen: Lessons from the Frontline of Strategy Execution, ‘To be agile, to be fluid, to be able to respond quickly to changes in the internal and external environment without losing momentum or vision – is an increasingly crucial skill and a core differentiator in today’s rapidly changing business environment.’
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
Our past is important to us all. It is from our past that we gain experience, insight and understanding, all of which shape our views, perceptions and beliefs. Critically, it develops our intuition and supports our judgment and decision-making. But strategy execution is not lived in the past. It is delivered in the present with a mind on the future. To that end, we need leaders with an agility of mind to draw on their past but set such knowledge and understanding in an ever-changing context. As Roger Martin argues, the world is a complex adaptive system and as such, is probabilistic not deterministic. By this he suggests that our past provides us with the necessary tools to identify patterns in our world but cannot be relied upon to determine what lies ahead. ‘The helpful mindset is to hold that as with all complex adaptive systems, the business system in which you operate is challenging to understand, but it has patterns that can be comprehended — not perfectly but well enough to make educated guesses that can be tweaked and tweaked as you get feedback from the actions that you take… Great strategy is about creating a future that does not now exist.’
Given the inherent complexity and unpredictability of our environment, strategy execution is often mired in failures, mistakes, unforeseen errors and unexpected changes. Strategic success requires such setbacks to be seen as opportunities to learn, adapt and come back stronger hence the oft-referenced concept of ‘resilience’. As the American Psychological Association defines it, resilience ‘is the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, especially through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility and adjustment to external and internal demands.’ In Emotional Capitalists, Martyn Newman, a leading psychologist specialising in emotional intelligence (EQ), argues for a ‘psychology of leadership’, advocating that EQ in leaders is fundamental to creating competitive advantage. Of the many qualities that can and must be learnt by leaders, it is optimism and the ability to respond positively to setbacks that Newman suggests is arguably the most important in separating the highest performing leaders. ‘Optimism and resilience in the face of adversity are the greatest long-term predictors of success for individuals and organisations.’
Agility, however, is not just about the ability to adapt to unforeseen events. Great strategy execution is sensing the need for change and, despite dissent and opposition, having the moral courage and resolve to drive it through. Sir Anthony Seldon knew this only too well when he was appointed as Head of Wellington College, once one of Britain’s most prestigious public schools but which by 2006 had lost its way. Determined to not only make it great again but best in class, Seldon gave direction upon taking the chair that the school was to break with centuries of tradition and transition to co-education. His clear foresight, courage and determination to adapt transformed its fortune, seven years later earning the accolade of ‘best senior school in Britain’.
Whilst ‘agility’ is now an intrinsic part of business lexicon, like all facets of strategy execution both judgement and balance is required in application. By its very nature, agility, whether proactive or reactive, engenders change and disruption that demands careful management to mitigate associated negative impacts on people, processes and outputs. Speed and agility must therefore be matched with stability and certainty. A recent McKinsey study drawing on 25 years’ worth of data on 7,800 CEOs from 3,500 cross-sector companies, sought to identify the mindsets and practices of excellent CEOs. They evidenced that consistently high performing companies balance speed with stability. ‘Excellent CEOs increase their companies’ agility by determining which features of their organizational design will be stable and unchanging and by creating dynamic elements that adapt quickly to new challenges and opportunities.’ Values, intent and key processes are examples of enduring stability that ensure alignment and organisational conformity, from which agility, adaptation and innovation can pivot. In Making It Happen, Stephens illustrates this balance in an environment fraught with complexity and change. On taking command of the UN peace-keeping mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1994, Lieutenant General Sir Michael Rose, facing multiple warring fractions, political discord and sitting on the precipice of a humanitarian catastrophe, identified that his first task was to set a clear strategic intent. ‘The first and most crucial element of Rose’s strategy was the delivery of humanitarian aid on which so many people’s lives depended,’ states Stephens. General Rose provided clarity and with it, an element of stability, to not only the UN multinational force for which he was responsible, but to the international community more broadly. In so doing he established what in military doctrine is referred to as the ‘master principle of war;’ selection and maintenance of the aim. Regardless of the events that unfolded thereafter, every individual across the force was clear on the strategic intent. It gave people clear purpose and a galvanising sense of motivation, yet allowed agility in execution, adapting to the fluidity of the context in which they were operating.
Whether fighting a war of national survival, transforming failing institutions, striving for sporting greatness or pursuing a competitive business edge, mindset is fundamental to success. It necessitates an indefatigable will in pursuit of the ends but agility of mind in the ways and means. Such a cognitive disposition breeds a relentless pursuit of excellence with a readiness to adapt and innovate in the midst of change, underpinned by a core belief in one’s purpose and values. It is an attitude and set of beliefs personified by the early innovators of Britain’s airborne forces. Executing a small but defining part in a broader military strategy, the Bruneval Raid in early 1942 not only contributed to an ultimately successful air campaign against Nazi Germany, but set the foundations for a collective mindset that permeates the DNA of The Parachute Regiment today, encapsulated in their regimental motto, ‘Ready for Anything.’
Written by Langley Sharp, Author of ‘The Habit of Excellence – Why British Army Leadership Works’
EXPLORING MY OWN or OUR TEAM MEMBERS MINDSET
DISCUSSION GUIDE FOR LEADERS / TEAM MEMBERS
This mini guide can be used by individuals or members of a team to reflect on their own mindset and how it relates to the team. It is intended to provoke better understanding of the individual’s mindset at a point in time and to consider actions that can be taken to strengthen mindset.
How motivated do I feel?
- Feelings are partially determined by our thoughts – can I redirect my thoughts so that, despite the circumstances affecting my motivation, I can draw upon thoughts that will increase my motivation?
How clear is the purpose of our team?
- Have I given sufficient effort to understand it really well?
How hard am I pushing myself?
- Could I put a second effort into my contributions?
How do I summarise my mindset?
- Eagernesss to win?
- Bring on the next challenge?
- Ready for anything?
- Or, disaffected passenger, letting others take the strain?
Do I need to adjust my attitude, can I leverage my mindset in the team?
To what extent am I seeking opportunities to take myself out of my comfort zone? For example, volunteering to take on a new project, or operate in an area that will expand my knowledge and skills? Take on a task that is menial, but needs doing?
Do I have an instinct to self-protect and seek others to blame, or do we enjoy a real sense of collective accountability?
How can I / we learn from failures?
- First focus on the positives – What actually went well?
- What 3 things could YOU have done differently to effect a more positive outcome? Identify these individually, then discuss them as a team
- Turn a lesson identified into a lesson learnt. What lessons (a minimum of 3) do you now need to take away as a team to do differently next time?
- How accepting of change is your organisation? Identify long-standing traditions that might be reducing your ability to maximise output / productivity. What barriers to change exist to alter these traditions and what could change them?
- With your team, agree which features of your organisational design provide ‘enduring stability’ and why? Then ask, what elements enable you to be dynamic, to adapt (reactively or proactively) to change?
Skarbek deliver High Performance Teamwork Programmes and Project Leadership Programmes with human dynamics insights, such as the power of mindset, that have an immediate positive impact on individuals and also team performance. Contact us at email@example.com to learn more.
 2007 HBR article, ‘A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making,’ David Snowdon and Mary Boone.
 Snowdon, D.J. and Boone M.E., A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making, Harvard Business Review, November 2007.
 Mintzberg, H., The Strategy Concept I: Five Ps For Strategy. California Management Review; Fall 1987.
 The term ‘strategy’ derives from the Greek ‘strategos,’ meaning ‘general of the army.’
 Stephens, R. (2021) Making it Happen: Lessons from the Frontline of Strategy Execution.
 Discussion with author.
 Former Chairman and CEO, Procter and Gamble and Professor Emeritus at The University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management Strategy respectively.
 Lieutenant Colonel, later Major General John Frost CB, DSO and Bar, MC, DL, was played by Sir Antony Hopkins in the star-studded WWII classic A Bridge Too Far, depicting the epic battle at Arnhem in September 1944.
 Covey, S. (2020), The 7 Habits of High Effective People. London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, p.78.
 Ibid., p.20.
 Ibid., p.31.
 Chambliss, D. (1989), ‘The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers,’ Sociological Theory, Spring 1989.
 Carl von Clausewitz, a Major General in the Prussian Army, is one of the greatest military theorists of all time. His seminal book On War is arguably the finest book ever written about war.
 Stephens, R. (2020), Making It Happen: Lessons from the Frontline of Strategy Execution.
 Newman, M. (2014) Emotional Capitalists: The Ultimate Guide to Developing Emotional Intelligence for Leaders. London: RocheMartin, p.74.
 Stephens, R. (2020), Making It Happen: Lessons from the Frontline of Strategy Execution. Chapter 4.
 Stephens, R. (2020), Making It Happen: Lessons from the Frontline of Strategy Execution, p.56.
 UK Defence’s 10 Principles of War are: Selection and maintenance of the aim; Maintenance of morale; Offensive Action; Security; Surprise; Concentration of Force; Economy of Effort; Flexibility; Cooperation; Sustainability.